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The He and She of It (joss whedon mention)

Friday 3 August 2007, by Webmaster

Gender and Fan Culture (Round Nine, Part One): Derek Kompare and Cynthia Walker

CW: Hi, I’m Cynthia Walker. I’m an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, where I teach a variety of courses including journalism, public relations, media literacy, film history, broadcast studies and scriptwriting. I have also been a professional journalist and critic for 35 years and currently, I cover professional regional theater for The Home News Tribune, a daily newspaper in Central New Jersey.

I earned my MA in Media Studies from the New School in New York City, way back in the 1980s when such programs were few and far between, and received my Ph.D. in Communication from the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies (SCILS) at Rutgers University. Before coming to St. Peter’s, I served as assistant director of the Center for Media Studies at Rutgers, designing and piloting media education curriculum and professional development courses for middle schools in New Jersey.

I discovered media fandom in the mid-1980s, at a time when folks were just moving away from mimeographed newsletters to printed zines. I had loved the 1960s spy series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., since I first watched it at age 11. (You can find my essay on that experience here so I was excited to attend a Creation Con at which Robert Vaughn was a guest star in order to see him in person. There, I met Nan, who eventually became my good friend and fanfiction collaborator. She was the one who told me about fanzines and pointed me toward U.N.C.L.E. fandom. I began writing a collection of short stories and novels based on U.N.C.L.E. which eventually became a popular long-running consistent universe that’s still being published and expanded, both in print zines and on the net. The rest, as they say, is history.

I guess because I’ve straddled boundaries and have found myself in both the creative/producer and audience positions, sometimes even simultaneously, I’ve always been fascinated by the interaction between various groups in the media process. My Ph.D. dissertation, A Dialogic Approach to Creativity in Mass Communication proposed a collaborative model of mass communication, using The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as a case study. What I tried to demonstrate through the model and a systematic unpacking of MFU as a cultural site, was my view that the ultimate meaning of a cultural text (re-conceptualized as a "work/text") is the result of the many dialogues that occur, often simultaneously, between and among the various collective parties involved in the mass communication process.

DK: I’m Derek Kompare, assistant professor of Cinema-Television in the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University. I’ve taught courses in recent years in media and culture, television history, television criticism, media globalization, and specific film and television genres (focusing on science fiction, and, this fall, crime television). I did my graduate study in the Comm Arts department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1990s, where I was trained in a variety of theoretical approaches (cultural studies, feminism, formalist film theory, political economy, post-structuralism) and research methods (primarily historiography and textual analysis).

Because of this range of theory and method, I’ve always been most interested in studying practices and processes of what could loosely be called "mediation," i.e., how particular media forms develop in particular historical, cultural, and industrial contexts. My 1999 dissertation traced the genesis of a particularly taken-for-granted form, the TV rerun, as an important vehicle for industrial exploitation and cultural significance in the late 20th century. In revising it for my book Rerun Nation (2005), I expanded its range backwards and forwards, connecting the development of copyright in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the formation of the DVD box set in the 21st. This experience reinforced for me how every cultural form has, to poach some Foucault, archaeologies of discourses, weaving throughout time and space. In other words, every cultural form comes from multiple, and often contentious, sources of power and signification.

I’m currently researching "television authorship" as a specific cultural form with its own "archaeologies." I don’t wish to resurrect auteurism, but rather probe how versions of auteurist discourses have shaped television culture, and the television industry, over the past thirty years. Who gets to be a "television author"? What power, if any, does that category wield? How is it crafted and challenged over time and through different contexts?

This interest has led me back to where I came from, I suppose: fandom. Not fan studies, fandom. I had always been fascinated with film, TV, and genre fiction growing up, and pretty solidly self-identified as a "fan" around the age of 14. Indeed, as the intro to Rerun Nation makes clear, I was fascinated by TV reruns from even before then. My ur-texts in this regard are Doctor Who and Star Trek. Throughout high school and college, I joined organizations, subscribed to newsletters and zines, and attended my first cons. Middle-aged women, primarily, introduced me to the intricacies of fandom (Doctor Who in particular was dominated by women fans in the US at the time), and supplied me with APAs, fanfic (including slash), and fanvids well before I read Textual Poachers in grad school.

Still, although I considered myself a fan, and was actively familiar with several fandoms and forms till the late 90s (recruiting a few people into fandom along the way), I suppose I was never really immersed in it (more of a "wader"). I was an active reader, viewer, and commenter, but never actually wrote fanfic, nor planned cons, nor made it a central part of my life at that time (you can read some of my thoughts about this over on this reply on Kristina Busse’s blog). Since then, I’ve been much more of a "tertiary fan," minimally active on one online forum (Outpost Gallifrey), attending the Gallifrey con in LA off and on, and maintaining contact with some of my original, 1980s fan friends.

The persistence of Doctor Who fandom in the 1990s, and its role in reviving the series on British TV in 2005 (along with the whole academic Buffy hurricane, demise of Star Trek, and unlikely revival of Battlestar Galactica), led me to think more about the conjunction of fans and "professional" modes of creative production. I saw existing models of fan studies as unable to move much beyond a binary construction of "fans" and "producers," that, to me, seemed a relic of a different age of media production and reception (the 1970s and 1980s), and instead approached the problem from the perspective of "mediation," not favoring, or assuming what "fans" and "producers" are, but looking at how those categories are being actively constructed and challenged.

And then Nina posted her response to MIT 5, and I realized I’d been missing (or had taken for granted, perhaps) the different constructions of these categories going on in different corners of fandom, and had been neglecting the issue of gender in particular (at least in fandom; ask me about Amy Sherman-Palladino!). And so now here I am, still hoping to complicate the binary of "fans" and "producers," but more interested in various fannish conceptions of these categories than I was a few months back.

Fans and Producers CW: Although we’re from different cohorts (some of those middle aged women were no doubt my friends), we do have similar backgrounds and interests. Star Trek, Dr. Who and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are some of the oldest fandoms with long, multi-decade histories.

I do most certainly agree that the binary construction of fans and producers doesn’t work any more, and my point in using a historic series like MFU as a case study was to show that probably it never did. It’s like the old linear sender-message-receiver with a feedback loop that I still see being taught in introductory Communication courses. I don’t know if the media process has really changed but certainly our conceptualization of it has.

I prefer to think of a cultural site like MFU as the result of a many creative dialogues between and among many parties (some of whom are collective) and these parties often change places. Thus, any party or parties might find themselves in the role of either writer or reader at any given point in time. Writers become readers and vice versa, just as producers become audiences and vice versa.

Another concept that interests me (and, I suspect, it interests you, too) is how the arrival of the Internet and digital technology is redefining what Josh Meyrowitz called "a sense of place." Fan efforts like fanfiction, machinima, the Star Trek New Voyages and the like on one side and commercial efforts like FanLib on the other seem to be blurring the line ---if there was, indeed, a line to begin with.

DK: I’m certain some of those women were at least known to you. That was one of the things that most impressed me at the time: that there were networks of fans sharing interests, copying zines and vids, hosting parties, and welcoming newbies, all over the world. Fandom continues to have this sense of "fan generations," as a fantastic family lineage, as people and texts and forms and such are continually "passed down" and revised over time.

I have to say as well that, while there certainly were some men in these fandoms (back in the 80s-early 90s), most of the organization, production, and action was done by women. I thus never really got socialized as a "fanboy," at least in the stereotypical, Kevin Smith-is-God sense of the term. It’s interesting in this regard to note that Doctor Who fandom in the US has been predominately female, while in the UK it has long been overwhelmingly male (and hegemonically gay at that, at least over the past 15 years or so). It just shows how contexts, while not everything, are certainly pretty damn important.

Men Collect, Women Create? CW: You mention that most of the organization, production and action was done by women. That was my perception as well. Ten years ago, I did a quantitative study of MFU fandom that I’ve shared with you. The response rate was very good, and I managed to capture at least a third or more of the entire fandom. There were two main findings. The first was that individual fans appeared to move along a continuum of involvement motivated by two factors: interest in the source text and community. The second finding was not one I expected at that time: that is, that men and women had different fan experiences. They might have the same level of interest in the source text (and in MFU, particularly, that interest was --- and remains ---very high and intense), but they took part in different activities. I know it’s become a cliche that men collect, women create, but I must admit, that’s exactly what I found. At that time, MFU fandom was about one- third male (I suspect that’s still true today, although the percentage may be even a bit higher). The earliest active MFU fans were actually male, but the gender balance began to tip in the mid-to-late 1970s to female fans, who ran the fan organization, wrote, edited and published the first fan stories, organized the occasional cons (although the guys attended in respectable numbers) and eventually, set up and moderated the discussion lists. In our fandom, there is a contingent of prominent male fans who, through various means, acquired most of the actual props and collections of merchandise from the series. One is the author of a behind-the-scenes book, which, after over 20 years, is still in print. But with only one prominent exception and a few dabblers, almost all the fanfiction is written by women.

In addition to focusing on different fan activities, I also discovered that women fans simply had more fan friends ---a lot more. It’s unclear whether they were more involved because they had more friends in fandom, or, they had more friends in fandom because they were more involved. I’m planning to conduct the same study again this year to see what changes there have been in the fandom. I suspect there have been some, but I also expect that these two main findings will hold. Mind you, I don’t expect that they necessarily can be generalized across individual fandoms, because each fandom, depending upon many factors including when it came into existence, has a character unique unto itself.

DK: As your U.N.C.L.E. work showed, contexts continually shift around texts, and the cultural life of any artifact is always going to entail different kinds of interests converging and, as you said, having "creative dialogues." In that case, the series has long been maintained by its fans and creators in concert (more or less), especially in lieu of wider distribution. I think every media fandom has these kinds of exchanges, actually, where discourses and categories bounce between and among fans and (for want of a better term) producers. This never happens the same way twice, and many (maybe most) of these exchanges are framed by the economic interests of the parent company (i.e., how can these fans generate some more revenue for us), but there are "dialogues," before, during, and after a series has run.

What some fans call the "source text" doesn’t just appear out of the blue, after all, but is already the polysemic result of loads of writing, revising, meetings with executives, casting sessions, "tone meetings," editing sessions, and everything else. And that’s just to get a pilot shot, let alone on the schedule. And even at this point, fans may already be being listened to. For example, if Bjo Trimble’s first-person account of everyday life on the Star Trek set in 1966 is to be believed, fans were already ensconced into the lifeblood of the series from day one.

CW: Yes, and for that, we have Gene Roddenberry to thank who actively recruited audiences even before Star Trek was on the air. What folks may not realize is that he wasn’t the first producer to reach out to active, dedicated audiences. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which pre-dated Trek by two years, inspired an intense reaction by young people, those in high school and college. TV Guide called it "The Cult of Millions" and producer Norman Felton wrote a memo to NBC’s vice president of programming that U.N.C.L.E. fans were reacting to the show in a way not quite seen before: "They talk about the program with other fans, and go beyond that: they proselytize, they want to convert non-viewers." There are actually a number of close connections between MFU and Trek. On the creative side, not only had Roddenberry worked for Norman Felton and MFU’s other creator, Sam Rolfe, but the two series employed many of the same writers, directors, production crew members and actors. On the fan side, both series drew their first audiences from the science fiction community, and Bjo Trimble, the godmother of Trek fandom and David McDaniel, an SF fan who wrote the most popular pro-published U.N.C.L.E. novels and helped establish MFU fandom’s first fan-run organization, were roommates for a time. In both Trek and MFU, the fans and the professional creators established ties to each other fairly early on.

DK: Today this happens as well, but the Internet has produced a new "sense of place," as you put it, in this regard. It’s long been stated among online fans how the ’net is like a 24/7 con. It’s also a 24/7 pitch session, gossip den, and critics’ corner, where boundaries are blurred, and they can’t keep you off the Paramount lot (or, metaphorically, playing with the prop room and the actors’ trailers). Online, "producers" are the folks on the Lost writing staff who snoop around fan forums under pseudonyms. However, "producers" are also the folks online who start fanfic ezines, organize fanvid production, rally writers and readers, and host fanart shows.

Like you said, the line’s not only blurred, it may not have even existed. That said, as the FanLib saga has indicated, some factions of The Powers That Be (TPTB) do want to (re)draw the line, on their terms, turning these dialogues into a purely economic market, with little to no understanding of fandom on its own terms. I will always argue that this isn’t even remotely a universal stance of everyone in the Industry, but it is very much the official Party Line of (say) CBS, Disney, or Time Warner: fans are consumers and/or potential suppliers. Note that this is still (STILL!) the dominant construction of "The Fan" in mainstream media, as if to route any kind of creative act right back towards serving the brand.

CW: That reminds me of the story, which Engel repeated in his book, Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek of George Lucas asking Roddenberry what to do about all the unauthorized fan activity surrounding Star Wars. Roddenberry said to do nothing, that the fans would make him rich.

DK: Interesting story about Roddenberry and Lucas. Both them and fandom were moving into uncharted waters at the time, so Roddenberry’s advice makes sense. Still, it’s significant that his advice was about how to "get rich," and that he was right! It would be interesting to analyze how this changed rapidly in the 1980s, as Paramount slowly wrested control of the franchise (and, to an extent, its relationship with its fans) from Roddenberry.

I’m interested in how these uses and conceptions of each category have developed since then, and especially over the past decade or so. How might dialogues between the shifting categories (as opposed to rigid binary) of "fans" and "producers" help move us to another context of creativity and collaboration?

The existence of fandom itself is a major change in this relationship, as "producers" now routinely claim some kind of "fan" credentials. I think this has come about mostly because of the changing status of television in general. People, including ostensible television writers, can admit a much greater affinity and interest in TV per se than they could have done 30 years ago. An interest in TV is more legitimate now than then; a "fannish" interest even more so, depending on the genre. Joss Whedon, to cite the most prominent example, has been the poster child of this phenomenon.

That said, as has come up at other times in these discussions, there’s a significant difference between claiming to be a fan, and actually participating in fandom. However, I think this difference shouldn’t be measured as much in material as in discursive terms (which always work back around to material terms, I suppose). Terms like "fan," "author," "creator," "artist," "visionary," "punk," "geek," etc. are strategically and tactically deployed by and around particular figures, and for particular audiences. There are major differences between being described as a "fan" in a New York Times interview, at a Santa Monica screenwriting seminar, in a network planning meeting, at a con panel, or in an LJ post (just to name a handful of venues). Each instance attaches a different meaning to the term "fan" (and every other descriptor), working to position the figure and the reader/viewer/audience in different ways.

Moreover, depending on the figure and their contractual obligations, the iterations of "fan" may be tightly policed. For example, the BBC forbids any of the primary production personnel (including cast) on Doctor Who from attending conventions or participating in any fan venue. At the same time, though, series writers like Paul Cornell and Rob Shearman are granted free rein, and have routinely gone to cons and interacted with fans online and in person for years (dating back to when they were "just" fans in the 1980s). To go back a while, even Ron Moore, back when he was just a guy on the TNG staff in 1990, was still able to schmooze with the fans and get geeked up about the narrative and relationship possibilities of the Enterprise-C crew (from "Yesterday’s Enterprise").

Still, there’s a sense among some fans that these people aren’t really fans, and that whenever they claim to be, it’s all PR. My response is that while PR is certainly real, it’s not an all-purpose screen. Most of these folks do have fannish passions and perspectives; a few of them even share them openly. Granted, these perspectives may not always jibe with yours or mine, and their very definition of fandom might not match your or my experiences (i.e., most of them seem to be stereotypical "fanboys," and none of them seem to be stereotypical "fangirls"). But that’s no reason to dismiss everything they do or say as mere blather from TPTB!